Do charities need intelligence analysis?

26 Feb

Catching up on reading is one of the side-benefits of a freelance lifestyle, and I’ve been enjoying Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, What the Dog Saw. I felt that Blink and Outliers were more like extended magazine articles than books (unlike the Tipping Point), so this book is perfect as it’s a collection of his magazine articles. Having skipped through chapters on the Talent Myth and Why Job Interviews Don’t Matter (all a bit too pertinent right now), I was fascinated by his look at intelligence analysis.

He writes about 9/11 and the oft-reported intelligence failures that allowed it to take place (aka why didn’t they connect the dots of all the various relevant pieces of information they had). His take on it is that intelligence has changed: from solving a ‘puzzle’ to solving a ‘mystery’. By which he means that in the past, intelligence officers would receive information, then work out the ‘answer’ to whatever the puzzle was. So the key task was getting enough information, then working it out.

But the opposite is now true: all the intelligence agencies have more than enough information; in fact, they have too much. It’s easy to look back after the event (as with 9/11) and connect the dots, but at the time there were hundreds of thousands of dots, all of which could have been relevant or a red herring or completely unconnected. In essence, therefore, intelligence has shifted from being one of passively receiving information and using it to get the answer (solving a puzzle) to actively utilising networks, information and data to ‘write’ the story / narrative, work out the players, the next steps to follow and undertand the complexities of the whole picture (solving a mystery).

What occurred to me reading it is that this isn’t a million miles from the realities of what is needed in many organisations, in public, private and social sectors. The ability to:

–       be well-networked (on- and offline) to receive and transmit information

–       assimilate and collate that data and information

–       read and review it at speed to identify what is key

–       edit and summarise it into manageable / usable formats and documents

–       relate and integrate it to mission, strategy and impact

–       communicate it clearly and simply to influence and inform decisions

In working with people across the social enterprise and charity worlds, it soon becomes apparent that, in regard to most questions, challenges and problems, there is no right answer. They are not puzzles, but mysteries in an ever-more networked world full of information and data.

Which makes the role of the intelligence analyst a key one not only for the FBI, CIA, MI6 and the rest, but also for organisations seeking to be neither overwhelmed by an unrelenting flow of information, nor left behind because they missed the key moves, shifts and opportunities. The stakes might not be as high (to say the least) but charities and social enterprises should be thinking about which person or persons plays that role for them; it could be key to the future of the organisation.


3 Responses to “Do charities need intelligence analysis?”

  1. Karl Wilding February 26, 2011 at 5:05 pm #

    Interesting thoughts Nick. I’ve been wondering if the problem is a bit more murky for many charities and socents: insufficent data on which to make decisions, or relatively poor quality data…and then a problem of having the tools and skills to analyse data.

    I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing for a long time, but just before reading your blog I was reading an Economist article on the rising use of predictive analytics…and thinking even though we have tools to do this (SPSS) and some skills, would our data be up to it? (eg if we wanted to understand dynamics in the sector like organisational failure/decline).

    Hmmm. For what it’s worth, I’ve raised the skills issue with Skills-Third Sector. My guess is the data issue is something we need to address individualy and collectively – a good example area might be fundraising and charitable giving.

  2. Nick Temple February 27, 2011 at 10:28 am #

    Thanks Karl – I think you’re right about both the quality of the data, and the skills and tools to analyse it. It’s also more generally about simply processing the volume of information that’s out there: leads, news, events, research, trends….and working out what’s relevant. Which is also about skills, techniques and tools; but many organisations I’ve been speaking too lately are very much in head-in-sand on this one…

  3. Servane Mouazan February 28, 2011 at 9:48 am #

    Thinking back on an event we held about social intelligence, i think it might be an item you can add to your list of “abilities”, what is needed in many organisations, in public, private and social sectors.
    It would be Social Intelligence
    – more than just the skills and tools to process knowledge. Something like a talent, maybe something innate that can grow with appropriate education?

    Read: Daniel Goleman has drawn on social neuroscience research to propose that social intelligence is made up of Social Awareness (including empathy, attunement, empathic accuracy, and social cognition) and Social Facility (including synchrony, self-presentation, influence, and concern).

    Too many times in a lots of incubation or business support programmes, we forget the aspect of social intelligence. We surely have personal support like coaching and mentoring, but we need a binding sauce, something that links up all individuals and knowledge involved. It could mean having the opportunity to step back and look at the performance and impact of an organisation from this social intelligence perspective, a wider picture.

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